Saturday, 12 March 2011

Nuclear Power and Climate Change – No Easy Fix

The massive earthquake and following tsunami hitting Japan yesterday, today had a first serious secondary effect in the form of a large explosion in a nuclear power plant close to Fukushima, causing physical injuries and severe structural damage – thus adding to an already quite serious situation of other nuclear power plants in the same area:

This picture, circulated by global news media illustrates the amount of damage to the external structure caused by the explosion:

The problems started already yesterday, when the tsunami caused electrical failures that incapacitated the technological installments meant to control the temperature of another plant in the Fukushima area. Already then, radioactivity was emitted and tens of thousands of people where relocated for protection, and plans for venting radioactive gas into the air to release the pressure inside the reactor was made official. The explosion in the second plant means that the problems have significantly escalated, it now includes five nuclear reactors and the evacuation scale has been  doubled; now to cover a 20 km radius around the plants. If not before, both plants' cooling systems are now declared completely out of order. The Japanese agency for radiation protection has gone public with warnings that there is a risk of a bona fide "meltdown" – i.e. a Chernobyl type development that may cause massive radioactive emissions and ruin a large area around the plant for any sort of human activity or habitation for a very long period of time. This, however, is denied by the Tokyo Electric Power Company, that owns and runs the plants. According to them, the technology is of a sort that will stop the process of nuclear fission as the temperature rises – that is, assuming – I would personally like to add – that no vital parts of this technology has been damaged due to the precedent events. In any case, there will be substantial emissions of radioactivity due both to the explosion and the venting, and factors such as wind conditions will determine how this will immediate affect japanese people. Reports and further footage of all of this can be found here, here, here, here, here, here and here (in my own country, here, here and here) and in numerous other places. And here is an excellent link for keeping yourself updated on this matter.

Now, besides all of the tragedy directly caused by these and the related events, this development also provides some important perspectives on the recent return in Western countries of  strong nuclear power advocacy and support in view of the threats created by climate change due to green house gas emissions. This angle has revived the political leverage of the nuclear power lobby's old environmentalist argument, now beefed up with supporting claims about technology that guarantees that no Chernobyl scenario would be possible even if there was to be serious incidents in the plants. In my forthcoming book, The Price of Precaution and the Ethics of Risk, I assess this argument with rather pessimistic conclusions. Seen in a larger context, where the not only immediate security but also the serious long-term waste problems of nuclear energy are taken into account, there are much better alternatives for dealing with the challenge of ensuring energy production in the face of climate change. However, the recent events in Japan adds a further layer of doubt regarding the idea of nuclear power as the easy fix of climate change problems.

The events we now see unfolding in Japan need to be viewed simultaneously through four lenses: (1) Japan is a vastly rich and technologically well-developed country and its nuclear technology can therefore be assumed to be top notch, (2) for historical reasons, Japan is well-known to host a very demanding security culture when it comes to nuclear power, (3) what has broken down the security measures in this case are concentrated powers of nature, and (4) one of the main aspects of climate change scenarios are about how familiar patterns of where and when concentrations of such powers, resulting in events severely threatening human life and infrastructure, may change in virtually unpredictable ways.

Now, for sure, climate change will not directly affect the movements of Earth's shell – the basic cause of earth quakes and tsunamis. However, it does massively affect large-scale patterns of interaction between water, air, land and biological life (whether or not this may interact with the basic geological forces causing earth quakes, I don't know). I'm not any sort of expert in the field, but it doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand the basic uncertainties that this creates regarding temperature and sea levels, weather patterns, and so on. This adds severe complications to the context of any risk-benefit analysis of the idea of the developed world securing its access to energy in the face of climate change through a vast expansion of nuclear power. We have seen what one single earth quake and an ensuing tsunami means in a case where none of the excuses about lax security measures or dated technology wielded in the Chernobyl case are accessible. In the face of the severe uncertainties regarding very powerful concentrations of natural powers created by climate change, how can we in a responsible and cost-effective way decide such things as the proper construction of nuclear power plants, their location, and a suitable system for managing the waste problem?

It is not given, of course, that the answer to these questions have to be that we cannot. However, the apparently tempting piece of chocolate made up of the idea of managing climate change while not having to pay much of a price in terms of energy production cannot be taken seriously until thorough risk analysis is undertaken. Such an analysis needs to not – as is otherwise commonplace – assume basic patterns of nature making up the context of factors determining the security of any sort of installation to be static or foreseeable as linear predictions. It has to address the uncertainty regarding these factors created by climate change scenarios head on, as it has to include the costs needed to guarantee sufficient security in the light of such uncertainties.